Pedro Calderón de la Barca was one of the pre-eminent dramatists of Spain’s Golden Age of theater, circa 1580-1680, a time of flourishing artistic achievement. In addition to his celebrated autos sacramentales – plays written for the Catholic Church – Calderón authored many secular works for both the court and commercial theaters. Perhaps his most famous surviving script is La vida es sueño (Life Is a Dream), a philosophical allegory about the human situation and the mysteries of life and fate, written in 1636 and now being staged at Mad Cow Theatre.

The play’s main character is Prince Segismundo (Stephen Lima), unjustly imprisoned early in life by his father, King Basilio (Bobbie Bell), because the stars revealed that the son would grow up to be a cruel and dishonorable monarch. In Segismundo’s absence, there are two other pretenders to the throne – Estrella, Basilio’s niece (Michelle Krause), and Astolfo, his nephew (Jamie Cline). Astolfo, in seeking marriage to his princess cousin, has dishonored his former fiancee, Rosaura (Leander Suleiman), daughter of Clotaldo (Sarah Jane Fridlich), the king’s chief minister. Rosaura, unaware of her parentage, comes to Basilio’s court with her companion, the jester Clarin (Elena Day), seeking revenge.

As the plot unfolds, Segismundo is drugged and taken to the court while unconscious, declared king and ultimately returned to prison after being found as unworthy as the stars have predicted. Upon awakening in shackles, he comes to believe that his brief interlude of freedom was only a dream. Unchained later after a palace revolt, he eventually understands that life itself is a dream from which only death can awaken the dreamer. This knowledge leads him to become a wise and tolerant ruler. All intrigues are forgiven and all humiliations erased.

Calderón’s spiritual themes, his highly poetic and elevated language, and his explorations of jealousy and honor are all intended to evoke intense and uplifting responses from his audiences. Try as they might, though, the uniformly solid performances offered by the Mad Cow company, as well as director Alan Bruun’s clever theatrical conventions, cannot overcome the deficiencies in the play’s archaic structure.

The main problem is that, for the most part, the work is light on dramatic action. Much of the plot is told to us in long, hyperbolic monologues with more events happening offstage than on. So, while the characters muse upon their conditions, often with great passion and intelligence, none of their pathos engages our emotions, nor their arguments, our intellects. In the end, we have little empathy for their situations and no particular consideration for any of their resolutions.

Perhaps, at one time, Calderón’s sage inspiration about the diaphanous unreality of life was novel and intriguing. But Spain’s Golden Age was a long time ago, and the years have tarnished this particular theatrical treasure.



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